We’re living in the future: modern cars are quickly moving towards the feature sets that spaceships had in science fiction shows. One of the most interesting developments in recent years is the appearance of head-up displays (HUD) in mass-produced cars. And while the technology is stunning, the UX and visual design don’t seem to be quite there.
We would like to show you a few HUD designs from the user interface design class that we taught this year at Fachhochschule Potsdam in Germany. In our weekly discussions and design critiques with the students, we have gained a tremendous amount of new insight and perspective on in-car UX design.
We’ll share the key findings and the design mockups in this article.
Based on our briefing*, 25 students created near-future concepts for eight specific models from these manufacturers: BMW, Citroën, Lexus, Mini, Mercedes-Benz, smart, Tesla, and Volkswagen.
Even though this list represents a wide range of styles and target groups, the basic parameters and needs of a human driving a car do not vary much. So a few patterns emerged that are common across brands and drivers:
1. Visualization > Numbers
Speed and speed limit are easier to recognize and understand when shown as a graph as opposed to in plain numbers.
2. Redundant Information, Different Presentation
The HUD can contain information that’s redundant to the dashboard, but this information should take a different shape so that it’s optimized for the windshield.
3. If It’s Not Indicating Something, It Shouldn’t Be There ( — Jony Ive)
Every time something is projected on the windshield, it has to be something that matters. Superfluous information or decoration clutters the view on the real world, distracts from the essential driving information and from driving itself, obviously.
4. Blurred Can Still Be Legible
Especially on a HUD, everything must be designed for maximum contrast and clarity. An ideal HUD can be read even when it’s out of focus.
5. A Projection Is Not a Display
There is no way to project black, obviously. But there are more limitations to consider on a HUD, where the background is the real world behind glass, sometimes bathed in bright sunlight.
6. The Car Should Not Patronize the Driver
Our informal research shows that many people take it personally when the car tries to enforce the speed limit or other traffic rules with obtrusive warnings or blinking messages.
So, for example, it’s better when the HUD provides a smooth escalation from a gentle hint to a serious warning with increasing speed. It’s obtrusive or even offensive when there’s a hard threshold that doesn’t have any built-in speeding tolerance.
7. Hardware Prototyping of HUDs Is Hard but Hackable
The complex mirror system that simulates projection distance and the special single-reflection windshield in consumer car HUDs are hard to prototype.
Our students came up with simple solutions that do not provide the illusion of depth like real HUDs, but still manage to simulate the projected qualities of graphics and text on glass in a convincing way.
8. Most Icons Need Labels
Cryptic icons have a long tradition in car dashboards. “What does that red light with the triangle mean?” But in dynamic, software-generated UIs the localization of text is not an issue, so adding clear labels is perfectly feasible and can help flatten the learning curve.
Obviously, this little collection of random findings is just a fraction of the things to consider when designing a HUD. Since cars will be stuffed with more and more features aimed at the driver (car apps are on the horizon), we hope that car manufacturers don’t forget to polish the basics for confident and safe driving before adding further complexity.
We invite you to comment on our thoughts and on the designs.
Thanks to our students for their excellent work:
Christian Franke, Sebastian Prein, Lennart Ziburski
Patricia Dobrindt, Simon Martin, Jakob Flemming
Cécile Zahorka, Fabian Archner, Sebastian Kaim
Dominic Rödel, Laurids Düllmann, Phillip Steinacher
Kien Nguyen Canh, Moritz Kronberger
David Rehman, Michael Dietz, Thomas Petrach
Marie Claire Leidinger, Jonathan Jonas, David Brandau
Constantin Eichstaedt, Steffen Gabel
* Our brief to the students was to focus on the current and next generation of driver-centric head-up displays — meaning that we allowed no overly futuristic Iron Man holograms, no esoteric edge-use cases for niche markets. Instead, we asked for usable, realistic projections that convey the right amount of valuable information to the average driver on average roads. The only liberty we took: we assumed a slightly larger projection size than what’s currently on the market. While current HUDs feel iPhone-sized, our hypothetical size limitation was iPad-sized, or even larger for certain slim aspect ratios.